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University of Sunderland

The importance of secure database systems

Posted on: February 11, 2022
Man sat in front of multiple computer screens looking at data

Companies across sectors are amassing data faster and in bigger quantities than ever seen before. Data now has critical functionality within a business, informing business decisions and operations at a more precise rate. It is important that this data, which can include confidential business information as well as the personal and private information of their customers, is kept safe, secure, and protected from any potential data breaches.

The software used to manage and release queries from a collection of data is called a database management system (DBMS), and the efficiency of database security can be measured by several aspects, including whether privacy and confidentiality are preserved, and whether the availability of data is too easily accessible both internally and externally.

Not only does database security include the data itself and the DBMS, it also extends to the security of any associated applications, the physical or virtual database server and the underlying hardware of the server, and the computing and/or network infrastructure which is used to access the database.

What is a data breach?

A data breach is when confidentiality of the data in a database isn’t maintained. Cyberattacks are on the rise across the globe, with many companies targeted for their data. Data is lucrative, and hackers can earn large sums of money for selling on the information that they steal from databases.

As cyberattacks show no sign of slowing down, businesses have no choice but to increase their cybersecurity efforts to maintain secure databases and keep sensitive data guarded.

If database security is lacking, the consequences of a data breach can vary in severity. Consequences can include:

  • Intellectual property compromised – if trade secrets, new products or inventions, or confidential business practices are stolen or leaked, a company may lose their competitive advantage
  • Damage to company reputation – when customers perceive a company to be untrustworthy with their lack of data protection, they may be unwilling to buy that company’s products or services for fear of their personal information being unsafe and stolen
  • Business continuity – if a breach impacts a company’s system, the system may be shut down forcing a business to go offline and temporarily lose customers and profits until the breach is resolved
  • Fines for non-compliance – a data breach could expose that a company isn’t compliant with global regulations such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), or Europe’s General Data Processing Regulation (GDPR), large fines can be incurred  
  • Costs of repairs – breached organisations must spend time communicating the situation to customers, and are also responsible for the cost of forensic and investigative activities, crisis management, triage, and repair of the affected systems

Common causes of database security attacks

Breaches can happen as a result of many things – software misconfigurations, vulnerabilities, or internal carelessness or misuse. While malware is one of the most well-known security threats, there are many more instances in which data security can be compromised.

If too many employees have access to databases which hold sensitive information, security risks are high. Threats can come from an internal stakeholder who intends on carrying out a data breach to do harm to the company they work for, a negligent employee who makes errors within the database which makes it vulnerable to attack, or an infiltrator who manages to override access control or obtain credentials through a phishing attack.

The majority of data breaches occur as the result of human error – accidents, weak passwords, sharing passwords, or other uninformed user behaviour can all have devastating impacts on a company’s data.

Software vendors and open source database management platforms include regular updates in their software development life cycle to prevent security issues. If a company doesn’t implement the updates promptly, it could leave their data vulnerable to hackers.

SQL or noSQL injection attacks involve the insertion of attack strings into database queries served by web applications or HTTP headers, putting companies who don’t follow secure web app coding practices or who don’t carry out regular security testing at risk.

Backups of datasets are also vulnerable if they’re not protected with the same stringent controls applied to the core database. 

How to keep databases secure

Databases are almost always accessible through the company network, so any security threat within the network infrastructure or to an employee’s device could compromise a database in the event of a breach.

User access to a database should be controlled, with only essential employees holding credentials to access it. Permissions should be restricted to giving individuals the level of access needed for their roles only, and authentication should be introduced as an extra security measure.

Implementing data monitoring tools can alert IT teams when unusual or risky database activity is detected, and the security of physical items – on-site servers and employee devices – should be enforced and maintained.

All company data should be encrypted and encryption keys should be managed and kept safe by database administrators, and auditing should be performed regularly to ensure high standards and data security is maintained.

By training staff in spotting security vulnerabilities, being vigilant to cyberattacks, and carrying out regular sessions on the importance of secure database systems, human error can be avoided.

Learn how to protect businesses from the inside

Computer science is an industry which is growing at an unprecedented rate, with skilled professionals sought-after in the modern world of work.

Whether your interests lie in software engineering and creating DBMS, or you’re looking to take the reins to a company’s security controls to keep the confidential data of the business and their customers safe, an online MSc Computer Science from the University of Sunderland will give you the skills you need to succeed in your career.

Our Secure Database Systems module will provide you with the ability to design and develop secure database systems using relational and advanced database technology, whilst examining advanced database topics alongside gaining hands-on knowledge of the development process using a DBMS such as Oracle or Postgres.

Open to individuals already working in the sector and looking to progress and those who are looking to change their career path, this master’s degree is studied part-time so you can apply what you learn to your current role. 

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